REGINALD HILDEBRAND: N.C. Freedom Park will 'let it shine'

Posted October 9, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated October 9, 2020 6:59 a.m. EDT

EDITOR'S NOTE: Reginald Hildebrand is a professor in the Department of African, African American, and Diaspora Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a member of the North Carolina Freedom Park board and delivered these remarks Wednesday at the ground breaking for the park in Raleigh.

It has been a long journey to get to this starting point. We, today, are an important part of a very significant global phenomenon. Less than two weeks ago a park was dedicated in Paris to honor a woman who fought to end slavery on the French Caribbean island of Guadalupe. And in 2001 a monument called the Tower of Freedom was dedicated in Windsor, Ontario in Canada.

In fact, most of the places in the Western hemisphere that have a history of slavery have chosen to celebrate emancipation and efforts end enslavement with bold, positive, inclusive works of public art that affirm the value of freedom and are located in prominent public spaces. The construction of Freedom Park North Carolina will proudly become one of those places that has chosen to celebrate freedom.

Let me tell you a story that will help illuminate the meaning and message of this great park. This is a newspaper account of something that happened here in Raleigh on the 4th of July in 1865, just a few months after the end of the Civil War and the end of slavery. It reads:

“The Fourth of July was one of the happiest days the colored citizens ever experienced. The procession was large and grand, well represented by hundreds of school children. Many persons came in from the countryside, to this their first celebration of independence. The line of march was through the principle streets, passing the Governor’s Mansion and thence to the beautiful grounds of the Peace Institute. There the Declaration of Independence was read. It was, indeed, a well-written and well-read document, full and complete, sublime and eloquent. The deafening applause during its delivery told how it was received and appreciated by the waving mass of human beings, whose hearts beat in response to the great truths.”

One year earlier, in 1864, the editor of a black newspaper called the Anglo-African, visited North Carolina from New York as part of a trip he was making to observe the status of the people who were then emerging from slavery. He reported: “There is a peculiarity about the people of North Carolina. There seems to be more of the unquenchable fire of freedom in the eyes of these people than in those of any other people we have yet visited.”

It is the spirit of those newly freed people, who responded with deafening applause to hearing the words of the Declaration read: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with an unalienable right to liberty.” Those words had a power and a meaning for them, that even the man who wrote them couldn’t have fully understood. The unquenchable fire of freedom in their eyes, that is what we will celebrate and represent in Freedom Park.

This will be a unique, arresting and original project. It will be a place of beauty and history and a popular destination for visitors. At its center will be a towering, inspiring sculpture called “The Beacon of Freedom.”

In challenging, troubling times some might question the value of constructing symbols, and public art. It is true that symbols are not all important. But neither are they unimportant. The do matter, particularly in unsettling and contentious times. Our public art, and our public spaces, reflect who we are as a society, as a community. They proclaim what we believe and what we aspire to achieve. They illuminate what and who we value. This will be especially true for Freedom Park.  It will serve as a source of instruction and inspiration for school children, and a source of encouragement, now, and for people of the future, who may face challenges we can’t even imagine today.

Whatever their own background, whatever challenges they are facing, when they come to Freedom Park and look up at the Beacon of Freedom and read the words of black North Carolinians who struggled for freedom they will begin to understand that heritage and realize that there are many inspiring examples for them to follow. And they will be encouraged.

They will see that the pursuit of freedom is not the exclusive province of men with guns facing foreign foes. But also of women, who were enslaved, like Harriet Jacobs; and of educators like Charlotte Hawkins Brown; of businessmen like John H. Wheeler; and poets like George Moses Horton; of clergymen like the Reverend James Walker Hood; and of course Civil Rights leaders like Golden A. Frinks.

When they come to Freedom Park they will learn that the people who tend to express the value of freedom most powerfully and convincingly -- and with the greatest moral authority -- are the people who were denied it most completely. The people who were slaves and their descendants. Their words and their witness will serve as reminders for anyone who may take freedom for granted or who may falter or become discouraged in its pursuit. They remind us that the flame of freedom that lit the soul of every slave still burns in all of us. They remind us, that the battle for freedom begins every morning.

Through the often troubled and dark history that we share together has emerged an illuminating and inspiring Beacon of Freedom that we will also share together. And echoing through that history is the wisdom and the encouragement of what Co-Chair Goldie Frinks Wells has called “the Voices of Freedom” in the form of the quotes that will be artfully inscribed on the walls along the walkways through the Park.

This will be our gift to future generations. It will tell them what we valued and the kind of society and community that we were trying to become.

When visiting the Park black people will be proud but they will not be alone. Visitors of every background will be uplifted and they will think of the Beacon as a powerful, iconic symbol of this state. We will all be proud that we played a role in building Freedom Park. That we helped create this common ground where we can affirm our shared values and ideals.

As I close, a few words specifically about the Beacon of Freedom.

Just as the torch held high by the Statue of Liberty welcomes, encourages and inspires people coming from across the sea seeking freedom, the Beacon could be seen as a kind of domestic Statue of Liberty whose light will encourage and inspire people for whom America has always been home, but who find themselves engaged in efforts to expand, secure, or defend freedom right here.

Or it could be seen as something like the Biblical pillar of fire that led enslaved people of out of the House of Bondage and beckoned them ever onward toward a promised land. But I believe that there is another way to think of the Beacon that comes closer to what it will mean 50 and 100 years from now.

The persons whose words will be inscribed along the walkways -- each of them had different life experiences and they lived in different time periods but each of them, in their own way, has something to tell us about freedom or the lack of it. About courage and commitment and about perseverance through adversity. Even though they are all different, they are all singing from the same hymn book.

And those of us working on this project, as we read their words and considered their lives -- we could almost hear them telling us: “This little light of mine, let it shine.” That, I believe, is the meaning and the purpose of the Beacon of Freedom. And “let it shine” is what we must do.

And so between the State Archives where history is preserved and the State Legislature where history is made: “Let it shine!” That is to say so we won’t forget where we’ve come from or lose sight of where and how we need to progress: “Let it shine!”

When the dark clouds of pandemics and injustice and poverty and homelessness and needless deaths and killings and a contentious, unsettling, divisive, political climate. When it seems like we are about to be overwhelmed by uncertainty and discouragement: “Let it shine! Let it shine!”

That light will keep our eyes on the prize and will not confuse random acts of destruction and violence with a determined march toward freedom.

Someday people will be able to come to this place and look up and get for themselves a spark of that unquenchable fire of freedom. Because we here this day have committed to: “Let it shine, let it shine, LET IT SHINE!

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